Their last resort
After 12 solid months of prior review and administrative censorship chipping away at The Statesman, Stevenson High School’s once-award winning student newspaper has become a shell of its former self.
Following the paper’s placement under prior review in January 2009, editors were told that the measure was only temporary. Meanwhile, issues of The Statesman were censored and the editors were giving up hope. Eleven out of the 14 staff members of The Statesman left their positions after prolonged conflict with their administration over their ability to publish a student-run newspaper.
For the students who walked away, the resignation was not meant to send a message or to get attention. It was the only option left.
“We just did it because it was the right, the principled thing to do for ourselves, for the newspaper staff based on the circumstances given to us,” former managing editor Evan Ribot said.
By quitting, former editor-in-chief Pamela Selman said it felt like she lost the battle, but was the only decision left.
“It was definitely one of the hardest decisions I’ve made during my high school career…It was such a huge part of [the staff], and for me personally, I put so much into fighting this battle this year…And we did all of that, for what?” Selman said.
Ribot said he feels that sometimes walking away from the situation is the only option and that other student journalists should not be afraid to quit if the situation calls for it.
“If you’re dealing with people who aren’t playing fair, people who aren’t playing by the rules, if you’re in a situation that you can’t win, it’s something that you have to consider,” Ribot said.
Beginnings of controversy
The series of articles on the “hooking up” culture was just the beginning of a long fight over the content in The Statesman.
On Jan. 30, 2009, The Statesman published a string of articles that covered teenage sex and dating from a variety of perspectives. Reporters interviewed students, teachers and professionals who discussed the psychology behind casual sex and its popularity among teenagers.
Reacting to the articles, the Stevenson administration placed the formerly autonomous Statesman under prior review in February 2009, requiring then-Communication Arts Program Director David Noskin to review each issue before it goes to print.
As a result of the newly restrictive policies, former adviser Barbara Thill stepped down from her position in April 2009. Under Thill—and not under prior review—The Statesman was awarded a coveted National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker in 2005 and 2007.
“We were told [prior review] was the administration helping us out and doing its duty as an educational body to help and protect its students. Our ‘hooking up’ issue, in the school’s eye, demonstrated our inability to recognize our boundaries, and thus additional oversight was needed,” Ribot said.
In past interviews, administrators said they had concerns with The Statesman prior to the Jan. 30 issue and the prior review policy was not created as a result of it.
Ribot recalled a completely different climate before the publication of their package on “hooking up.”“I remember learning in the journalism classes as a freshman about how fortunate our paper was to have such a supportive administration, about all the positive things, about how our principal stood up for us, things like that. Obviously the culture, for the last 12 months, has been completely different,” Ribot said.
With review comes censorship
Under new advisers and a policy requiring prior review of each newspaper, the staff of The Statesman had to endure an onslaught of administrative censorship in the months following the Jan. 30 issue.
Administrators refused to print the Nov. 20 issue, objecting to articles addressing shoplifting and teen pregnancy, and a front-page article that used anonymous sources to discuss the school’s substance abuse (“no use”) policy after Selman submitted a copy of the issue to the administrative review board for prior review. Staff members silently protested the censorship of the Nov. 20 issue by “passing out” non-existent newspapers to students at the entry doors of the school.
That same day, Jim Conrey, director of public information at Stevenson, released a public statement detailing the review board’s decision to pull the Nov. 20 issue. In the statement, administrators said advisers did not think having anonymous sources in an article discussing alleged illegal activity was “fit for print.” It also explained that while the advisers gave the editors the option of holding the article until it could be changed, they decided to run a blank cover, which was not a suitable solution for administrators.
Days later, staff members were then told to publish a newspaper comprised only of administration-approved content. After being told their grades were dependent on the issue’s distribution, the staff requested to remove their bylines from the published stories approved by administrators and to include an editor’s note explaining the circumstances under which the issue was being published. They were denied both requests by administrators.
“The clearest First Amendment violation was compelling students to put their names on a product and distributing it. When you’re talking about compelling people to put their name on a product that isn’t theirs, it’s a slam dunk First Amendment violation,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
In the Dec. 18 issue, administrators again prevented an article discussing the use of prescription drugs from being published. In another act of protest by the staff, a blank page and an editor’s note of explanation were published in its place.
The article reported on drugs and their side effects, and included the story of a female student openly discussing her use of birth control pills. In a publicly released statement, Board President Bruce Lubin said that though the article addressed a newsworthy topic, the administration could not publish personal medical information about a student.
The student editors obtained volunteer legal help through the SPLC from Chicago attorney Gabriel Fuentes, a former journalist, and his firm, Jenner & Block LLP. But even with Fuentes’ assistance, the students were unable to obtain any meaningful concessions from administrators.
After the Dec. 18 issue and failed meetings between administrators and the staff members of The Statesman in regard to censorship and content guidelines, the newspaper staff decided to take their issues to the school board.Selman and Ribot spoke out against censorship and prior review at the school’s Board of Education meeting in December 2009. Ribot said he and the newspaper staff had been questioning the administration’s establishment of prior review for months—its purpose, necessity and how long it would be upheld.
Selman said the ultimate goal of their speech at the board meeting was not to lift prior review.“They do have the right to do that. We don’t support it, but we respect that they have the right to do it. We were moreso asking them to stop censoring to a ridiculous point,” Selman said.
Selman said she and other staff members just wanted to know when prior review should be applied and did not want to be given the runaround by the administration.
“I think there was a lot of being told one thing and the next day they were saying the polar opposite. They were strongly urging us to communicate with our advisers rather than talk to them, saying that they didn’t have anything to do with it. But once you open up prior review, you have everything to do with it. And administrators need to be willing to cooperate with their students, they need to be willing to listen to them…I think I have every right to talk to my administrator,” Selman said.
At the December board meeting, a statement was issued on behalf of the Board of Education by Board President Bruce Lubin. The statement declared, “The Statesman is not a ‘public forum,’ but rather, an educational and curriculum endeavor.”
In every issue of The Statesman prior to the December board meeting, the masthead stated that the newspaper is a public forum, said Randy Swikle, state director for the Illinois Journalism Education Association.
“My question is, who is holding the school board there accountable for saying it’s not an open forum? When did the board adopt this viewpoint?” Swikle said. “School officials have made many false and misleading statements that they’ve not been held accountable for. And looking at the students as mere subordinates rather than as partners in education, they do grave disservice to the school community.”
Although staff members were frustrated that their questions about prior review were not being answered, Ribot said they tried to change their focus to opening the channels of communication and creating a better relationship with the administration.
“We worked really hard to set up meetings, talk to our administrators…and for the most part, every time we tried to do that, it came back to bite us. We thought that we were trying to get on even ground, be respectful, and create an honest relationship. A lot of times, they did not hold up their end of the deal, and that was very frustrating,” Ribot said.
The students were asking for clear standards as to what content would be suitable for them to publish. “What the students were asking for was incredibly modest,” LoMonte said. “They were really just begging for advance warning as to what would be censored. They didn’t want to put a lot of time and effort into work that would be inevitably shot down.”
LoMonte said the struggle between administrators and students has changed over the last 12 months into more than just prior review and censorship.
“I think this stopped being about journalism a long time ago for the school and started being about power and control. This is about breaking their spirit and breaking their will,” LoMonte said.
A catalyst for change
Tension and animosity between students and administrators in schools like Stevenson and sparked the IJEA’s idea for a rapid response plan, which includes a packet of instructions that students and administrators are able to follow when tension builds.
Swikle said the idea behind this protocol, which is not binding, is to create a framework to use ethics to resolve disagreements. Stan Zoller, an IJEA board member, complied the response plan with contributions from the SPLC.
The response plan offers advice on resources, contact information and language choice.
“A protocol like this has great benefit in that helps to enhance accountability…It makes that stuff more transparent, which will help you have a more meaningful discussion,” Swikle said.
The rapid response plan was distributed to JEA regional directors and is available to download on the organization’s website.
Quitting is no easy feat for the dedicated. Walking away from The Statesman is something that Selman, Ribot and other student journalists never thought they would have to do. The decision was made after the students felt their prolonged efforts to communicate with administrators had failed. Their resignation as a result of the turmoil with administration has left a somber mood over high school journalism.
The decision was difficult for both Selman and Ribot, who joined the newspaper staff as sophomores after taking a journalism prerequisite course as freshmen, but was not one they went into lightly.
“It was a really significant decision to make because obviously it was something that we had all cared so much about. And resigning, I can’t even describe how difficult it was. It took a long time and a lot of discussion to reach that decision,” Ribot said.
“It was pretty much the one big constant throughout my high school career—it was something I really enjoyed,” Ribot said.
What the future holds
The Statesman has been a model high school newspaper in the region.
Huntley High School in Huntley, Ill. is about an hour away from Stevenson and is in another district, but its student newspaper staff knew all about the clash between Stevenson administrators and student editors.Victoria Luisi, editor-in-chief of Huntley High School’s The Voice, started off her high school journalism career exactly like Selman and Ribot and said in the past, she looked up to The Statesman as “a great scholastic newspaper.” She said she used The Statesman as an example for what The Voice could do. After taking note of the controversy between administrators and student journalists at Stevenson, Luisi is disappointed that The Statesman is nothing like it used to be.
“The administration needs to step back and see the insurmountable damage that they have done to this once great program. Better communication with the student editors was needed, instead of immediate review and action,” Luisi said.
Ultimately the administration must acknowledge that its students are an equal part in the journalism program, Swikle said.
“Any attempt to rehabilitate the journalism program at Stevenson depends upon the willingness of administrators to recognize students as important stakeholders and acknowledge the autonomy they have in determining the content of the student newspaper,” he said.
Selman said both students and administrators have to be open to collaboration in order for the newspaper to run properly.
“It’s a two-way street… no one can have a closed mind,” Selman said.Although she is unable to write for The Statesman anymore, Selman has found another outlet for journalism. About 20 student journalists including Selman, Ribot and former Statesman staff members launched their own news website in March through Chicago Now.
“We’re getting paid to do what we love, which is just ridiculous to us. It’s very exciting,” Selman said.
Aside from working on the new Web site, Selman said she plans to attend college and study journalism and political science, and that she might want to practice First Amendment Law. Ribot plans to attend college and continue journalism as a hobby that he continues to be passionate about.
Kelly Bauer—current editor-in-chief of The Statesman — continues to echo what Selman and Ribot have been asking the administration for all along: open communication and clear guidelines of what they can and cannot print in the newspaper. But her outlook on administrative censorship looks bleak. Although the tension has died down for now, she said she is positive it will come back once they are censored again.
“I just hope that the administration will be able to make better changes in the future that would be better for The Statesman rather than better for the school,” Bauer said.
The Statesman is currently being produced within the newspaper production course comprised of four students. Bauer handles advertising, page design, and content. She said each staff member is responsible for writing and editing content.
Conrey said the newspaper production course has been combined with the advance journalistic writing course so that there are enough staff members to produce the newspaper. Bauer said there are still only four students on staff and that they are relying on students from prerequisite courses to help hand the latest issues of the paper to students. She added that the four remaining staff members of The Statesman are the only students producing copy, and does not think merging the two courses would be beneficial, saying that the prerequisite courses are essential to the newspaper production course.
“We think that [prerequisite courses] are really key components… We’d like to have them be seasoned reporters because we know we can rely on them and that they’ll get all their sources verified,” Bauer said. She said she prefers working with the current staff members because they are reliable and have been on staff for a long time.Conrey said new policy guidelines for The Statesman were set on Jan. 7, 2009, about a month after 11 staff members resigned, in a meeting between the four remaining staff members of the newspaper, advisers Matthew Lockowitz and Lisa Lukens, as well as administrators.
Conrey said the guidelines clarify what is expected of the students who remain in the newspaper production class and how they will be graded. The production schedule has been changed to give faculty advisers more time to edit copy.
“There are certain things they are going to be judged on in terms of what it would be like if they were on a newspaper, you know, meeting deadlines, handling stress, working with others, coming up with story ideas, a variety of things. These things were not really spelled out very well before and now it’s much clearer for the students,” Conrey said.
However, Bauer—who was first informed of the policy changes by an article in the Chicago Daily Herald— said the administration had not discussed its plans for policy changes with the students and that she does not see them as policy changes but a rehashing of what the staff already knew.
The first issue of The Statesman was delayed as a result of most of the staff dropping the class in the beginning of the semester, Conrey said.
For Bauer, the decision to remain on staff despite the frustrating conditions comes from a sense of obligation to the Stevenson students and to future Statesman staff members.
“I still love doing this, but, it’s so different and they’ve really killed a lot of my passion for it because I’ve had to see so many of my friends leave and quit over this and it’s an impossible situation,” Bauer said.
reports, Spring 2010